Bossa Nova Keeps Its Cool

Fresh New Sounds from the Softer Side of Samba

Bossa Nova Keeps Its Cool

Sherie Julianne: 10 Degrees South.
If this 2014 release of soft Brazilian jazz and bossa nova sounds polished and self-assured, there’s a reason for that. Vocalist Sherie Julianne, who lives in the Bay area, spent ten years fronting a band led by Grammy-nominated pianist and arranger Marco Silva, a native of Rio de Janeiro, before 10 Degrees South was released. Here the singer calls the shots with Silva in a supportive role on an album filled with less familiar material by some of Brazil’s premier composers, including Joao Donato, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Roberto Menescal, Sergio Mendes, and Chico Pinheiro. The tempos are often on the brisk side, with a light, breezy touch that perfectly complements Julianne’s melodious voice. Silva’s rich arrangements allow space for interesting instrumental detours without detracting from the song. Sunny, lyrical, and unabashedly pretty, this Azul Do Mar release is both soothing and stimulating. Take it with you with when you hit the beach, and play it when you dream of returning.

Bebel Gilberto: Tudo.
Bebel Gilberto was raised the daughter of musical royalty, her father a central figure in bossa nova while her mother’s discography includes collaborations with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sounds like a great way to grow up—but not in every respect. “It’s not easy to find your own place in such a successful and creative family, certainly in Brazil,” Gilberto said in a New York Times interview. “The pressure was enormous. Brazilian people expected a lot from me. I did not want to call myself a bossa nova singer.” Because of those pressures, Gilberto left Brazil, but Brazil did not leave her. How could it when, while she was growing up, her father Joáo Gilberto spent almost all his waking hours playing guitar around the house? Tudo, which means “everything” in Portuguese, is an emotional scrapbook of the ups and downs of Gilbert’s sometimes tumultuous life over a five-year period, and stylistically the music also covers a wide range, liberally mixing sounds from her previous albums, including straight bossa nova, pop music, and the more electronic approach of 2000’s Tanto Tempo. Whether it’s the warm pop stylings of “Somewhere Else,” the dreamy “Areia,” the club-friendly “Tout Est Bleu” and “Inspiração,” or the straight bossa of Luis Bonfa’s “Saudade Vem Correndo” and Jobim’s “Vivo Sonhando,” Bebel Gilberto impresses. A key current figure and a bearer of the tradition—and on her own terms.

Eliane Elias: Made In Brazil.
On a literal level the title of this 2015 Concord release points to the recording sessions that took place in São Paulo, but there’s more to it than that, as some recent projects by this vocalist and pianist have had a crossover quality. So is Made in Brazil a conservative “back to the roots” project? Contemporary touches (including collaborations with Ed Motta and Take 6) suggest otherwise; nor is the album a greatest hits package of standard bossa nova fare. In fact, there’s plenty of new music, and the primary songwriter is Elias. Even so, it seems a welcome return to form that benefits from connecting with bossa nova more directly than on some recent efforts. Highlights include two originals, “Searching” and “Some Enchanted Place,” with their panoramic sound and lush, creamy strings that recall that period in the 1960s when arrangers like Claus Ogerman and Nelson Riddle added a huge, swelling backdrop to bossa nova and other genres. Where bossa can seem the province of aesthetes, Elias oozes sensuality, and you would be hard pressed to find a better voice to melt into the soundscape.

Vinicius Cantuária: Indio de Apartamento & Sings Jobim.
Vinicius Cantuária grew up in Rio de Janeiro; after moving to New York City in the 1990s, he became part of the downtown scene, collaborating with David Byrne, Arto Lindsay, Bill Frisell, and other experimental musicians. This and some early pop records may suggest a “non-traditionalist,” but generally the sparse and mostly acoustic arrangements on his two most recent albums should appeal to those who seek bossa nova in its most distilled form. The revolving cast of musicians (including Ryuchi Sakamoto and Norah Jones) who join Cantuária for a song or two on Indio de Apartamento, a 2012 Naïve release, form duets and trios that collectively play fewer notes than some solo musicians. The unvarnished recording keeps the focus on Cantuária’s deep baritone with minimal vibrato. Although the emphasis switches to a different composer, Vinicius canta Antonio Carlos Jobim shares the same sound and feeling of Indio de Apartmento. While other musicians feel compelled to create novel arrangements of more well-known Jobim material, this 2015 Sunnyside release gives it to us straight, keeping the spotlight on Cantuária’s voice, which, like Jobim’s, has gained weight and emotional nuance over time.

Emy Tseng: Sonho.
This 2012 debut album by vocalist Emy Tseng is primarily devoted to bossa nova and Brazilian jazz. Highlights on this Mei Music release include warm readings of two Baden Powell compositions (“Deixa” and “Berimbau”), Caetano Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” and Jobim’s “Brigas Nunca Mais.” The Taiwanese-born Tseng has a relaxed singing style and a clear voice that nimbly navigates tricky melodies while Andy Connell adds dabs of color on clarinet and soprano saxophone. The accompaniment on Chico Pinheiro’s “Na Beira do Rio” is minimal—just guitar, bass, and percussion—and the duets with nylon-string guitar (“California Dreaming”) and upright bass (Bernice Petkere’s “Close Your Eyes”) are even sparser. Ideal settings, these, for framing a beautiful new voice.

Joyce Moreno/Kenny Werner: Poesia.
Vocalist Joyce Moreno recorded her first solo album in 1968, and since then more than 20 albums have appeared under her name. The heavyweights she’s collaborated with include Elis Regina, Toninho Horta, Vinicius de Moraes, and João Donato. A 2015 release on the Pirouet label, Poesia consists of duets with pianist Kenny Werner. This is a ballad-oriented set—and that’s especially true of the Brazilian material, which includes songs by Jobim and Chico Buarque, as well as a nice reading of Bruno Matino’s “Estate,” an Italian song that long ago worked its way into the bossa nova canon. Werner is a sensitive and tasteful player whose accompaniment fits Moreno like a glove; their delicate interplay should appeal to listeners who love the art of the duet. A German label, Pirouet has a penchant for recording acoustic instruments with exceptional clarity and tonal accuracy, and this album is no exception.

Marcos Valle and Stacey Kent: Ao Vivo.
Shortly after Walter Wanderley released “So Nice (Summer Samba)” as a single in 1966, countless vocalists added it to their repertoire, and it quickly became a bossa nova classic. The breezy and catchy-as-Velcro chart-topper was composed by Marcos Valle, a prolific and versatile songwriter who soon began merging Brazilian music with rock, funk, soul, psychedelia, and just about every musical other style you could stuff into a song. The Light in the Attic label did the world a favor when, in 2012, it began reissuing some Valle albums from the early 1970s, hipping a new generation to the talents of a singer, band leader, instrumentalist, and songwriter whose compositions breathe the same rarified air as his greatest influence, Burt Bacharach. Ao Vivo pairs Valle with Stacey Kent, whose sweet, unaffected singing style proves that bossa nova can combine sophistication with girl-next-door charm. Originally released by Sony in 2013, this album was reissued on vinyl by Pure Pleasure Records in 2015. Remastered by Ray Staff at Air Mastering and pressed at Pallas in Germany, the 180-gram 2-LP live set stands out for its transparency and clarity. Valle is a brilliant arranger, his scoring of horns and wind instruments creating an impressionistic haze that is captured quite nicely in a natural-sounding recording with plenty of air. Sometimes reissue labels wait decades before they roll out the audiophile vinyl treatment, but in this case there was no reason to force listeners to wait—Au Vivo already feels like a classic.

It’s nice to see Marcos Valle getting his due, but what about the rest of the old guard, those musicians who helped create bossa nova or who, early on, helped reshape and popularize it? Some, of course, have passed away. Of the old masters who are still alive, the space between albums seems to be growing. We haven’t heard much lately from João Donato, Luis Bonfa, or Astrud Gilberto. The same can be said of João Gilberto, who continues to work and “tour” at his own pace (in other words, don’t hold your breath). The last time Gilberto was supposed to perform at Carnegie Hall—what would have been his first show in the U.S. in years—he announced, at the last minute, that there was some sort of snafu concerning travel regulations. That wasn’t his first cancellation, but you can bet that, should another North American date be set, true believers will once again clamor for tickets and make reservations to fly across the country. Sergio Mendes is a hit with a new generation of hipsters, his 2014 Magic a funky and lively collaboration with a stream of guests that include John Legend and Janelle Monáe. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are on tour together, and hopefully there will be documentation of that. Gil’s 2014 Gilbertos Samba and 2015 Gilbertos Samba Ao Vivo were both solid albums in the most bare-bones samba style. While listening to such lovely music, it’s worth remembering that, if things had gone just a little differently, bossa nova never would have happened. In Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced The World, Ruy Castro describes how João Gilberto played his guitar nonstop while searching for a sound he could imagine but which, for a long time, eluded him. Eventually he found it, and although Gilberto has never gone out of his way to conquer the music industry, somehow that sound spread. More than half a century later it’s clear that, while the world in general keeps getting louder, and more shrill, bossa nova continues to keep its cool.